Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

On September 17, 2011, the Morning Call ran this story called Inside Amazon’s warehouse: Lehigh Valley workers tell of brutal heat, dizzying pace at online retailer by Spencer Soper. I recommend you read it if you haven’t despite the length. Although I will sum it up here a bit, what I am going to do here is comment on Amazon’s behavior.

The article is written around interviews with people working at the Allentown, PA warehouse. There is no discussion of what is going on at other warehouses. I imagine it is similar, but it may not be. The TL;DR version is that Amazon is overheating workers, knows, and does not care. This also has to do with that they are using temporary workers heavily, and not only do temps not generally have health insurance (or if they do, it’s not on Amazon’s dime) but in this economy there is always someone else in need of work, which creates a class of workers who are essentially disposable and unable to protect themselves collectively.

Now the long version.

Let’s start with their recruitment ad, actually the recruitment ad from the temp agency.

“Chart your course to Amazon with ISS Warehouse positions in Allentown, PA. Looking for a new direction? Are you interested in working in a fun, fast-paced atmosphere earning up to $12.25 per hour? Let Integrity be your guide to a rewarding career with Amazon, the Internet superstore.”

The ads say applicants should be able to lift and move up to 49 pounds. They also say warehouse temperatures range between 60 and 95 degrees and “occasionally exceed 95 degrees.”

60 to 95 degrees, occasionally higher. In a warehouse where people are moving around carrying things all the time. 95 is getting a little warm for that, so it’s good that that’s the upward cap, right?

Oh, wait. Later in the article, they talk about summer heat well in excess of 95 degrees. A clear distinction is not made between the heat and the heat index, but the functional temperature in the warehouse apparently exceeded 110 on at least one of the days in question, and has gotten as high as 114.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals.

So Amazon knows that people are in danger of overheating, and this is a common enough occurrence that they have had paramedics waiting this summer during the heat wave, where heat wave seems to mean summer weather.

I guess it’s cheaper to keep paramedics on hand than it is to cool the warehouse.

Wait, doesn’t Amazon need to take care of its workers?

The supply of temporary workers keeps Amazon’s warehouse fully staffed without the expense of a permanent workforce that expects raises and good benefits. Using temporary employees in general also helps reduce the prospect that employees will organize a union that pushes for better treatment because the employees are in constant flux, labor experts say. And Amazon limits its liability for workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance because most of the workers don’t work for Amazon, they work for the temp agency.

Oh. I guess not. So what’s up with how hot the warehouse is? Is that a problem with warehouses in general?

Goris, the Allentown resident who worked as a permanent Amazon employee, said high temperatures were handled differently at other warehouses in which he worked. For instance, loading dock doors on opposite sides of those warehouses were left open to let fresh air circulate and reduce the temperature when it got too hot, he said.

The reason Amazon gives for not opening the doors is fear of theft.

This was the reason given for locking the doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory: to prevent theft. Too bad no one working there has time to read all the books they have on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the history of labor organizing.

So what happens when it gets too hot?

On June 2, a warehouse employee contacted OSHA to report the heat index hit 102 degrees in the warehouse and 15 workers collapsed. The employee also complained that workers who had to go home due to heat symptoms received disciplinary points.

People collapse and Amazon counts it against them if they go home. Wow.

The second complaint came from a doctor in the local emergency room. I don’t know the last time anyone else was in the emergency room, but I’ve had to go a few times over the years and the staff always seem really busy, like they don’t really have a lot of time to make phone calls.

Amazon responds by pointing out the number of people who didn’t have heat-related health events, and it looks like about 1% of the employees were affected badly enough to go to the hospital. While it is true that this is a small minority, it’s also true that we’re talking about only June 2 here. Amazon does not address how many employees were affected but did not go to the hospital, how many went on other days, how this has affected turnover rates, or what the acceptable level of preventable heat-related distress is. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if this is totally preventable by opening the doors, then the acceptable level is 0%.

Especially since the article goes on to say that Amazon has everyone carrying hand-held scanners, which track where stuff is at all times and that means that it also tracks where people are at all times, and when someone gets logged out of the system to, like, pee or something. That sounds like a pretty easy way for them to prevent theft.

And since people are penalized for leaving early:

Previously, workers who left early due to heat-related symptoms faced demerits that could ultimately result in termination if they didn’t provide doctor’s notes saying they can’t work in excessive heat, workers said.

Am I the only one who thinks that excessive heat is described as excessive because you don’t need a doctor’s note saying you shouldn’t be exposed to it? Also, how many temps can go to the doctor short of it being an emergency? Most temp agencies don’t provide benefits, and even when they do the benefits are generally shitty.

Amazon kept going back and forth with OSHA over the summer and started doing things to mitigate the damage like handing out ice pops.

They did not open the doors, though.

They also did not slow down the production rate. I’d think that if you were having trouble with production because the heat in combination with having to go fast made people have to leave for medical attention and you couldn’t fix the heat problem, you’d hire a few more temps and let everyone slow down. It’s too bad that Amazon can’t do that because it’s having such a tough time financially, I mean look at this:

Amazon had 2010 revenues exceeding $34 billion, more than triple its sales just five years earlier.

and its poor CEO!

Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeffrey Bezos, keeps climbing the ranks of the world’s wealthiest people. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be $18.1 billion this year, making him the 30th wealthiest person in the world.

and their stock value!

That wealth is tied to the value of Amazon stock, which has grown about eightfold to nearly $240 per share over the past five years.

What choice does he have but to push his lazy, thieving employees to work so that he can break even, despite his diet of ramen noodles and frozen peas? I guess he’s got no options but to try to erode those pesky worker protection laws, ensuring that a smaller and smaller workforce is pushed ever-harder with less and less recourse. Amazon and similar companies are working to create a permanent underclass of people who are unemployed and desperate, because people in that situation have little choice other than to take what is offered. Using temp agencies gives them a few advantages. First, temps aren’t Amazon’s employees, they’re the employees of the temporary agency. This means Amazon doesn’t have to insure them, and that the workers have little or no grounds to argue that an assignment was ended unfairly or without proper proceedings. Second, it is very hard for a temp to win a worker’s comp claim, so if they are hurt, they can quietly have their assignment ended without recourse. Third, temp workers have little or no opportunity to unionize, especially if the assignments are relatively short term, and Amazon’s own employees will have less ability to unionize if most of their coworkers are temps or if they know they can be easily replaced. While it is illegal to fire someone for organizing, it is not illegal to terminate someone for failure to meet a production quota, even if that quota is functionally impossible.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was 100 years ago now, but apparently we haven’t learned the lesson yet.


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